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The biennale’s best claim to prestige in the contemporary art world comes from Tobi Kahn, a well-regarded New York-based artist who has been featured in a range of museums over a three-decade career. For the festival, he contributed “Urah VI,” a Rothko-esque painting with solid-color squares meant to evoke the gemstone breastplate of the ancient Israelite high priest.
Another exhibit features Kahn’s “Saphyr,” a wooden table with a compartmentalized tray holding 49 small sculptures — an innovative way to count the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot.
“The most interesting thing for me in Judaism is time,” Kahn said. “I’m intrigued by what time means, the whole Jewish law of when Shabbat starts. I’m thrilled to be part of an exhibit that’s opening its doors to many types of Jewish understanding.”
While the exhibits feature a range of media and deal with a wide spectrum of Jewish topics, Ronit Steinberg, a professor of modern Jewish art at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, said the festival risks drawing an exclusively Jewish audience.
“It needs to be marketed so that it isn’t provincial and closed,” Steinberg said. “We know that there’s a danger when you define an exhibit under a certain religion. We need to persuade people to come see this just as art.”
While he understands that the festival will not soon attain the reputation of famous biennales like those in Venice and Berlin, Ozeri hopes over time it will at least become synonymous with the cutting edge of Jewish art.
“Jerusalem is trying to compete with New York and Berlin and Liverpool in Western art, and it can’t really put up a fight,” Ozeri said. “Jerusalem can become an art center if it uses its comparative advantage.”